Saturday, August 10, 2013

Eating New England

I grew up in New England, at least until the age of 8.  Extended family for the most part remained, and for the last twenty years or so I have spent some vacation time each year with family on the New England coast.  Now in my forties with two kids, I find myself reflecting quite a bit on where certain interests and passions come from.  All it takes is a brief return to New England to realize where so much originated.  I travel the roads driving from family event to tourist site to family event trying to explain this seemingly foreign culture and landscape to the kids in the back seat.  I can’t help but think about my youth and what remains.  I am a Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins fan, have thoroughly enjoyed the last decade or so, and feel comforted by hats and stickers everywhere.  I see housing developments hidden behind forests on the outskirts of small towns and realize I think housing developments should cut down a minimum of trees and keep the ponds, roads should have bends, yards should have stone walls and hardware stores should be small and locally-owned.  In the fall the forest should explode with color, and it ought to snow enough to plow.  On the perimeter of Boston and Providence I adjust to aggressive driving and realize that there’s nothing wrong with using the breakdown lane at rush hour or ignoring your blinker, lest you give the guy behind you a chance to cut you off.

My foodie passions and opinions also have New England roots.  Like most childhood memories, I know some of them are romanticized, but my returns to New England confirm that many of my ideas are founded in past and current reality.

I grew up in a world almost void of chains.  The closest McDonald’s to my house was at least 15 miles away and the closest with a playground was more than twice that far.  My neighborhoods were not lined with box stores and fast food restaurants.  Going out to eat called for patience and was rewarded with local creativity.  Fast food meant pizza and subs, and every town had a few places to choose from.  I suspect anyone my age or older anywhere in the country has memories of the world before chains took over.  

Aunt Carrie's in Narragansett, Rhode Island
The visuals of my childhood were filled with uniqueness – roads turned and traveled past stone walls and through small towns with various arrangements of church, town hall, library and general store.  Produce stands stood on the outskirts featuring seasonal, local foods grown on farms of human scale surrounded by forests.  The drive-thru didn’t exist and the only multi-colored lights on at night were small Narragansett and Schlitz signs in bar windows.  I didn’t see a generic suburbia until I was a teen.  This might all sound like a quaint childhood memory, but much of New England still feels this way.
As an adult foodie, I am seeing even more roots of my opinions and passions.  As a kid I didn’t know seafood was cooked any way but boiled, steamed or fried.  When I was about 11 my grandmother took me to Anthony’s Pier 4 in the Boston harbor, and I tried lobster Newberg, a dish combining of butter, cream, sherry, and cognac.  It was there that I decided that seafood should only be boiled, steamed or fried. (As an adult I can add broiled and grilled)  Fortunately, New England is still loaded with seafood shacks that do little more.  Spots with simple walk-up counters selling steamed or fried clams with bellies, broiled or fried sea and bay scallops, steamed lobsters, lobster roll, fish and chips with choices like haddock, cod, and flounder, but sadly no mushy peas, and perhaps clam chowder – these places abound.  They scream simplicity.  Some of them haven’t altered their menu in decades; the back-lit plastic has dried and become brittle and cracked.  If they’ve added anything they’ve just printed its name on a piece of paper and taped it to the menu on the wall. Salt, pepper and butter are the extent of flavoring.  Teens back from college work the counter and many of these places feature a little old lady who has worked the same window since the end of World War II.  Food is served in little paper boats with a side of tartar sauce.  What more can anyone want from seafood?  Some of my favorites are Ronnie’s in Auburn, MA, Aunt Carrie’s in Narragansett, RI, Captain Frosty’s in Dennis, MA, Bob’s in Kittery, ME, Day’s in South Yarmouth, ME and The Clam Box in Ipswich, MA.  You’ll notice that in New England Red Lobster, Captain D’s and Long John Silver’s are virtually non-existent.  There’s no need for them.  I can’t imagine New Englanders would tolerate them, much less patronize them.  Oh, how I wish someone on the California coast would open some real fish joints.  There are a few… Sam’s in Half Moon Bay, CA nails a lobster roll, and Phil’s in Moss Landing, CA is a good fish place, but every coastal town in New England has one or two spots that are just as good.  And unfortunately they don’t have whole-belly clams anymore.  My own California beachside village of Capitola would have three or four fish shacks if it were in New England.  It has none.  Business opportunity, anyone?              
Subway has made the sub sandwich ubiquitous nationwide.  I grew up knowing them as grinders.  The Jolly Giant in Worcester made the best Italian grinder – salami, capicola, mortadella, provolone, shredded lettuce, tomato, peppers, onions, olive oil, vinegar, salt, pepper and herbs.  Seemingly every grinder spot in New England has their Italian and others, including a meatball, a meatball and sausage, lobster salad, crab salad, and various melts.  You can also customize with meats, cheeses and veggies of your choice.  The bread had a slight crunch to the crust.  A special note – the meat was put on by the handful, not in layered, flat slabs and is cut paper thin.  It’s important that the meat not be flat – the bends and folds hold air and flavor and add to the texture.  Bushel ‘N Peck in Worcester still does a reasonable job.  Orbit in Holden, MA has a great meatball grinder.  I just had an Italian at Sweet Tomato’s in Chatham, MA that was ok.  Sadly, Jolly Giant has closed for good.  I am in search of an amazing, authentic and carefully crafted Italian grinder, but they do seem to be increasingly rare.  To my shock and horror, Subway is almost as common in New England as the rest of the country.  Jimmy John’s isn’t awful and their Vito (#5) satisfies a craving sometimes, but they don’t exist in New England.  Many of you can find one in your nearest college town.  Some basic sub/grinder rules learned at Jolly Giant – an Italian never has mayo or mustard.  For all grinders - the bread always crunches, the bread always is split down the middle, the meat is generously thrown on by hand, a grinder or sub is never grilled, crushed and heated unless a melt or meatball, and it’s always big enough to challenge you.  It isn’t available on whole wheat, gluten-free, seeded, sourdough, or sandwich bread.  It does not go on flat bread under any circumstances.  Follow the rules or call it something else – and that’s ok.  In fact, it is called many other things – hoagie’s, po’ boys, panini, etc. and that’s fine and they can all have their own rules and expectations.  All that said, many grinder places in New England have shunned these rules and now cater to all sorts of peccadilloes.  Whatever – just give me the authentic.            
After a wonderful day eating an Italian grinder for lunch and some fried seafood for dinner, how does a perfect New England day end?  Ice cream!  And not just any ice cream.  Step back Baskin-Robbins, Cold Stone and other pretenders.  In New England you get ice cream from your local, mom and pop shop and it is a fundamentally different product.  It truly does seem as though every coastal town has a half dozen, every inland region has a few and they all have lines, college kids waiting on you, giant servings, wonderful, classic flavors, souvenir t-shirts for the travelers and very few gimmicks.  What is a large three scoop on the West Coast is your basic, entry level in New England.  Flavors?  Black walnut, raspberry, Indian pudding, maple, ginger, frozen pudding, pistachio, and more.  Bubble gum, cake batter, peanut butter cup, or cookie dough?  They sure exist right alongside the classics.  Drive through the Cape or from Boston to Portland, Maine…how many could you count – seemingly hundreds and all with lines.  Frozen custard, frozen yogurt, soft-serve be damned….this is ice cream country!  Hard packed, rich, and served by hard-working teens with no corporate gimmicks.  This is the capital of ice cream!  I will eat more ice cream during a New England vacation than the rest of the year all together.  And when I do get ice cream at home, more often than not it’s gonna be my New England grocery store favorite…Ben & Jerry’s.  My favorite stops…Brown’s in York, ME, Pinecroft Dairy in West Boylston, MA, Brickley’s in Narragansett, RI, and The Ice Cream Smuggler in Dennis, MA.  To be fair, Marianne’s and Penny Creamery in Santa Cruz, CA fill the bill well when I am at home.

Much of the country, New England included, has fallen under the spell of the national, generic, standardized chains.  We are at risk of losing our regional characters.  Regional quirks in all corners are getting scooped up, homogenized and pushed out nationally.  Now we can get a Philly cheesesteak almost anywhere, Tex-Mex has long gone generic, and Buffalo wings are more identified with buffalos than Buffalo (WTF?).  I applaud the small shop owner who wants to bring a little bite of New England lobster roll to California or some real San Diego fish tacos to Florida.  Keep it real, but I don’t want to see it all standardized, dumbed-down and available from my car window at the lowest common denominator. Bring regional specialties to all of us, but do it authentically.  Tempt and inspire us come to New England for the full, authentic experience – and let’s preserve it so it remains available.  In fact, let’s try hard to keep all our local traditions excellent, from hushpuppies to gumbo, BBQ styles to chowder and chili styles.  Go to your local mom and pop place and preserve character and authenticity.   
What local idiosyncrasies did you fall in love with as a kid?  Do you have a favorite pizza or BBQ style?  Is there a certain way you think a taco should be prepared and served?  When you’re back home is there something you must eat to let you know you’re there?  What local culinary delights are you dismayed to see losing character and getting standardized nationwide?
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